This letter, from novelist and North Carolina native Allan Gurganus, was hand-delivered to Gov. Mike Easley after being read aloud at a press conference last week protesting the scheduled execution of Ronald Wayne Frye. Other noted artists participating in the protest included writers Doris Betts, Lee Smith, Susan Ketchin and painter Ippy Patterson.
Dear Governor Easley,
I grew up with you in Rocky Mount during the 1960's backyard barbecues, Cub Scout outings, helpless prosperity. Recalling our lucky starts, I can still be stunned by fits of gratitude. Luck and work let each of us advance in life, surrounded by loving kinfolk, underwritten by our financial advantage, our blondish hair and bluish eyes; not to mention our dads' golfing friendship with the chief of police. Our first three misdemeanors might be winked away as "boys will be boys." Boys like us, at least.
We were born into a time and town whose black and white communities would literally rush next door to tend neighbors' kids if something went wrong. After visiting Ronnie Frye in Central Prison, I feel far more grateful for our blessings. It took a jury less than one hour and 20 minutes to sentence him to death. Now his fate rests with you alone, lucky and unlucky in your power.
So, since the little I govern is storytelling, let me try this: Once upon a time there was a mother so unable-unwilling to care for her own children that, whenever a stranger at a gas station said, "What a nice little boy," she replied, "You want him? Cause he's working my last nerve. Take him."
She gave away three like this. No luggage, no paperwork. She offered her last two giveaway sons the bonus of one clean handkerchief between them. I am not making this up. She sent her children off with a couple she had never met to live in a house she would never visit.
Now, in a fairy tale (or in the Country Club Rocky Mount of our lucky starts), this couple would've been kind, making up--with apples and baseball gloves--for all early cruelty. Instead they found their two donated boys, age 4 and 5, were scarcely toilet trained; they had never eaten with knives and forks. It seemed they had been raised by wolves. So the adoptive father took to waking them daily with a bullwhip he lashed from the door of their room.
When school authorities finally recognized not one bloody stripe on Ronnie's shirt, but a head-to-toe system of years-old welts, the Frye boys were sent, not to foster care, but to a biological father they did not remember, a man they rightly feared. When he'd heard they had been given to strangers, this man expressed only relief at the end of paying occasional child support. He had things to teach Ronnie and David. A chronic alcoholic, he woke his sons to show them how he beat their loving stepmother.
This stepmom said of the boys, "they were like little ants running around, they were so starved for affection." And when the stepmom finally fled, beaten bloody in the middle of the night, our state's agencies tracked down the woman who'd first handed these boys to strangers and passed them back to her.
Ronnie Frye was 9 when a police photographer documented his lashed chest. He stands before a background obviously used as a lineup for grown-up criminals themselves. The forlorn image of a shirtless child is now used by health and police departments as a classic example of Child Abuse. But this image was never shown the jurors at Frye's own trial.
One of the jurors has since stated this photo alone would have changed her verdict. Frye's lawyer, by his own admission, was drunk or hung-over throughout the procedure. His co-counsel noted that, on the way to court, Frye's lawyer took steam baths probably meant to hide the smell of rum. This lawyer honored the wishes of a man understandably ashamed of his own family history; our inebriated state-provided counsel used Ronnie's passivity before further punishment as an excuse to do nothing.
Governor Easley, we still have the front view photo of the young Ronnie Frye. The state lost a far-worse image of this bullwhipped 9-year-old's back. From the front, we see the remnants of a leather thong curling past its intended target. I find the wounds depicted less disturbing than the expression on this kid's face. Finally rescued after years of being forced to say he'd cut his own back open while "falling out of a tree," the boy does not know he is about to be sent to homes far worse than the one he is leaving. He will later describe The Bull Whip Days as the happiest period of his life.
The young Ronnie shown here seems, as he stands stripped to his jeans and cowboy belt, almost proud--and nearly to the point of grinning. We can see a kid thinking, "They are being real nice to me. They promised me a ride in the cruiser plus a Dairy Queen after, if I do OK here. Mister? Should I make my arms go higher?"
In visiting Ronnie and other men on death row, I've found their single shared historical fact: Boyhoods, not of mere punishment, but daily ritualized torture. It is sadly typical that Ronnie Frye killed--not his own lawyer, not one of his many abusers--but a generous parent-figure about to evict him, a landlord who had lent him money, who had let him stay on a few extra months in his final home, an unheated trailer.
Ronnie Frye was born into a household unable-unwilling to feed or shelter him, a place where swift daily punishment was almost an after-work adult exercise routine. Like some child toppling through a glass transom only to be executed when he hits the floor, Ronnie fell straight through the very North Carolina system we've created to help the helpless. In a later capital case, Frye's hard-drinking lawyer brought to the meeting table, not the client's files, but on his lap, his beloved dog, Tigger.
I'm not making this up; given the fact of Ronnie Frye's life, I really don't have to. In 1993, after our state-funded lawyer lost the case at record speed, we meted out justice by locking Ronnie into a room alone, with a single window for receiving food. And on Friday we will kill him.
Governor, just as our own starter luck, yours and mine, led up staircases of further breaks and good fortune, just as we often take credit for every good thing that comes our way because of kindnesses done us long before our births, Ronnie's early torture begot luck worse and worse. We deserve our fates no more than he warranted his own, given away to strangers at age 4. And yet, at Frye's own trial, rather than defend himself by criticizing his own bestial parents, he chose to shoulder full personal responsibility for his deed, his luck.
I urge you, sir, after Ronnie Frye's whole life of injustice, cannot a little animal kindness be shown the man at last? Don't free him; just retry him. And this time let his lawyer be, if not a genius, at least sober, conscious. We're all promised "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." All Ronnie ever got was life--itself a dubious favor. I ask you to spare him at least that God-given life. Just leave him a little longer in his cage, with his bowl and his thoughts.
Lucky are we assigned Luck. Shouldn't our good fortune make us more gentle, more Christ-like, less cruel than the ones we brand the Cruelest? Ronnie Frye killed someone decent and he must pay for that. He already has. But he was paying dearly--his child-body scarred like a barber pole--long before he ever broke a law.
North Carolina--its communities, its social system, its legal profession, its very method of justice--utterly failed this man we find easiest to blame. A man we can "put down" with less emotion than most family pets demand.
As a citizen and storyteller, as a reminder of our own fortunate beginnings, I beg that you spare the life of Ronnie Frye. World without end, Amen.
Yours with brotherly memories,
Coda: Ronald Wayne Frye was executed in the early hours of Aug. 31, after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his appeals and Gov. Mike Easley denied him clemency. Frye was convicted of stabbing to death his former landlord, Ralph Childress.